Catholic Girlhood Narratives: The Church and Self-Denial

By Culley, Margo | MELUS, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Catholic Girlhood Narratives: The Church and Self-Denial


Culley, Margo, MELUS


Catholic Girlhood Narratives: The Church and Self-Denial. Elizabeth N. Evasdaughter. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996. 271 pages. $30.00.

In her introduction, Elizabeth N. Evasdaughter observes, "more than one Catholic has mentioned to me that you can tell who in an audience was raised Catholic by what they laugh at." Sadly, very little laughter finds its way into the pages of this heavy-handed indictment of "Catholic feminizers" (before Limbaugh's feminazis came the feminizers), those from Tertullian to Pope John XIII who propagated the doctrines of Catholic Womanhood. Evasdaughter looks to thirty-three twentieth century autobiographies by Catholic women in six countries to find evidence of the damage caused by "Catholic gender training" and evidence of the resistance by many of these writers to the definition of the Catholic Woman as "a kind of idealized domestic not given to female pleasures or intellectual pursuits and not willing to participate seriously in the working world."

As a student of autobiography who was raised a Catholic and educated by the oft-cited "Madams" (Religious of the Sacred Heart) to whom I owe my intellectual life, my first response to this book was "What a great topic!" And, truth be told, I do not quarrel with the thesis of the book: that the teachings of the Church about women have done untold (and in this case told) damage and that the guardians of the faithful must emerge from the Dark Ages and stop behaving so badly. But, alas, Evasdaughter is as doctrinaire as those she indicts and at some level she knows this. Early in her introduction she assures us: "My questions of the text were real questions, and lead-ins to answers I already had" and "I wanted my book to be natural and logical, rather than artificial and dogmatic." Sorry, I found the book to abound in precisely these features she tries to avoid.

Evasdaughter tells us she is a convert to Catholicism; she was raised a Protestant, lived six years as a Catholic laywoman and fifteen years as a Dominican nun before leaving the order. She tells us she was attracted to the "benefits" of Catholicism during the "melancholy of youth." These glimpses of her life suggest she has a story to tell, and part of that story is that she is very, very angry at the tual life in women. But Evasdaughter tells her story by indirection. She uses the autobiographers to demonstrate the deleterious effects of the "dominant" theology of subordination and self-denial, a theology suspicious of both the body and the mind in woman. To establish her foundation in this enterprise, Evasdaughter digs out the worst statements of the Church Fathers: Tertullian ("women are the devil's gateway") Gregory of Nyssa ("the Eve-like frailty of women") Jerome ("she is different from man as body is from soul"), and Augustine ("God ... loves her insofar as she is a human being, but ... hates her under the aspect of wifehood'); and exposes the influence of Thomas Aquinas who argues that woman is "naturally" subject to man, who possesses the "discretion of reason," a view endorsed by the Council of Trent in 1566. (To be fair, Evasdaughter recognizes a divergent tradition of Catholic theology, the "theology of equivalence" that recognizes the equality of men and women in the Creator's eyes.)

All this is too easy and is not news. When she turns to her analysis of the autobiographical texts themselves, she places them in two categories: those that celebrate the Catholic Church and those that declare war on it. The first group that do not fit Evasdaughter's formula are dismissed as superficial, dishonest, blind, and frivolous. She indicts their "ersatz sunniness" and dismisses them as "too sweet to be entirely honest and therefore seen to disqualify themselves as thoughtful examples of the genre." To illuminate the texts of those at war with the Church, Evasdaughter turns to a source "more archaic even than the Fathers of the Church," the Taoist philosopher Sun-tzu (400-320 B. …

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